It is no secret that American culture, especially during the mid-20th century, actively and aggressively worked to shame women regarding their sexuality, feminine health, and the circumstances surrounding their individual pregnancies. Amid the grimy surface layer of sexism, inequality, and persecution, though, was the even more sadistic combination of myth and reality that accompanied the “Friedman [pregnancy] test”, also known as the “rabbit test”.
“[American women] were, in essense, conditioned to feel amplified guilt about a sexist lie related to a situation for which they were already bearing an unfair proportion of the responsibility. That’s disgusting.”
The circumstances under which the use of the test came about involves a bit of animal cruelty, if only on a level that can be characterized as “predictable” for its time. An earlier procedure that included injecting female mice with the urine of women suspected of being in the early months of pregnancy had already proven to be a relatively accurate (98%) indicator. If the human woman from whom the urine was taken was indeed pregnant, the ovaries of the mouse would enlarge, and some ovarian follicles would mature.
The Friedman test used essentially the same procedure and yielded similar results, but it required the use of female rabbits rather than female mice. Due to the limitations of medicine and technology, as well as the attitudes of the time, the injected female rabbit was dissected in each instance of testing in order to examine its ovaries.
In hindsight, the death of the rabbits may seem needlessly cruel, even if we consider the urine injection and ovary examination to be the best indicators available at the time. Afterall, the inspection of ovaries does not have to involve lethal dissection. Still, while we may debate the ethics of animal cruelty versus the modus operendi of the day, it’s the manner in which this procedure was weaponized against young human women that is perhaps more disturbing.
By 1949, the phrase “rabbit test” was being widely used to refer to a medical prenancy test. Even though rabbits, mice, rats, and other rodents and various animals were routinely used in an unbeleivably wide array of medical and scientific testing procedures at the time, the very vague phrase “rabbit test” was commonly understood to refer specifically to a pregnancy test. This was not by pure coincidence, but by willful social determination, whether or not that determination was ever made explicit.
Setting the sexist impact of the popularization of that phrase aside momentarily, we can see just how deeply the deception ran. It was not long after the “rabbit test” phrase began being used that the related phrase “the rabbit died” started being used to indicate that the results of the test were positive for pregnancy. The phrase obviously endured to and beyond1975, when a reference was included in the hit Aerosmith song Sweet Emotion.
If you were paying attention earlier, you already gathered that the rabbits were dissected in order to determine the results of the test and that their deaths were not conditional on the results of the test.
It seems likely that the misconception originally begat the phrase, but it is also undeniable that, in the vast majority of cases that followed thereafter, the phrase begat the misconception. The result is also clear: young American women, as well as all those around them, were led to believe that the pregnancies were the cause of the rabbits’ deaths.
There’s no scenario under which the impact of the dead rabbit misconception is not negative. In the best case scenario, a hopeful, happy, healthy couple receives the joyous news of the successful conception along with the lie that the positive results came at the cost of the life of one rabbit that would have survived had they not been blessed with a successfully fertilized egg.
In the worst case scenario, one that must have been faced far more often than we want to imagine, a frightened, criticized, and potentially traumatized young woman received the terrifying news that she was pregnant along with the unwarranted additional guilt that her heartbreaking pregnancy killed a rabbit that would had survived had she escaped becoming pregnant.
It could admittedly be sexist and overly assumptive to further insinuate that all females are or were comparatively emotionally affected by the mental image of their positive pregnancy tests killing a cute and fuzzy bunny rather than an animal test subject they might stereotypically find less appealing. It is realistic, however, to acknowledge that there was at least a common expectation of and social indoctrination of women of the time to have a negative sensitivity to the idea of causing the death of a fluffy little rabbit.
They were, in essense, conditioned to feel amplified guilt about a sexist lie related to a situation for which they were already bearing an unfair proportion of the responsibility. That’s disgusting.
Because we’ve since moved on from “rabbit tests” and the specific sexism that surrounded them, it may seem natural to dismiss this entire conversation as being irrelevent due to having been overcome by events. On the contrary, it is immeasurably important that we remain actively aware that such societal trends and misconceptions existed in the past so that we may be vigilent enough to avoid them in the future.